By TIM HEARDEN
YREKA, Calif. -- The irrigation districts, tribes and other parties that voted to extend the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement are hoping Congress will at least debate the issue this year, their representatives say.
The 42 signatories to the pact that includes the removal of four dams from the Klamath River and numerous conservation efforts have agreed to its renewal for two years.
The extension came as U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is waiting for Congress to approve funding and authorization before he can make a final determination of the feasibility of the project, which he had hoped to do by March 31.
Bills by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., that would authorize the $1.1 billion project languished in 2012 amid strong opposition from some Republicans in the House of Representatives.
Greg Addington, executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association, said he hopes hearings will be held so that people with differing views can air them in public.
"Congress hasn't debated the issue," he said. "We want to see that happen. We want parties who are proponents and opponents to be on record and talk about their concern. ... We don't know what's going to happen, if they're going to pass legislation or do anything, but I know nothing is going to happen if it just dies."
Addington and others are placing some of their hopes with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Wyden has already been talking with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., about Klamath issues and reaching out to committee chairs in the House, spokesman Keith Chu said.
"He's gratified that all of the stakeholders were willing to recommit to those principles while understanding the political challenges we continue to face," Chu said.
However, Chu was noncommittal when asked whether Wyden planned to hold hearings or shepherd new legislation through the Senate.
The amendment to the KBRA announced Dec. 31 includes extensions of certain deadlines, including the time for passage of federal legislation. It also resolves tribal funding matters, clarifies procedures for use of habitat conservation plans, makes clearer the eligibility for the KBRA power program and makes other minor changes, according to news releases.
Jeff Mitchell, a Klamath Tribes council member and negotiator for the KBRA, said he thinks election-year politics and "fiscal cliff" budget matters pushed Klamath to the back burner in 2012.
"We recognize that, and we also recognize that anytime you're dealing with complicated water issues, they don't happen overnight," Mitchell said. "It usually takes a run or two at Congress before you get something acted on."
Local opposition to the project remains. Tom Mallams, a long-time opponent and newly elected county commissioner, vows to keep fighting the KBRA while insisting he would support another settlement if it more adequately protected water users.
"As the county commission in Klamath County, we're going to revisit this fairly soon," said Mallams, a Beatty, Ore., hay farmer. "We want other options to be looked at, and these groups refuse to look at other options ... As far as I'm concerned this horse is already dead. They're just keeping it on life support."
Mallams said he believes some irrigation districts in the basin signed on to the extension because they feared their water allotments would be in jeopardy if they didn't. He also complained that tribes were given a special right to negotiate terms with the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Addington denied both allegations, explaining that any signatory could try to renegotiate or opt out of the agreement if conditions warranted.
"If Congress passes legislation implementing the KBRA that says, 'Cut water allegations in half,' that's not the deal we signed up for," Addington said. "We would have the opportunity to say 'No, we're not in agreement and we're not going to live up to our end of the bargain on that.'"
Water districts are mindful, however, that the tribes may be on the verge of having their senior water rights affirmed by a long and complex adjudication process, Addington argues. In addition, another biological opinion on the water needs of imperiled suckers and coho salmon is due out this spring, he said.
The agreement lays out how water would be shared between farms and fish during drought years, and tribes would agree to limit asserting their water rights in exchange for other concessions, including timberland lost when their reservation was dissolved in the 1950s.
Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement: http://www.klamathriverrestoration.org/kbra-summary.html
Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement studies and EIS/EIR: http://klamathrestoration.gov